Friday, August 24, 2012

Review: The Nerf N-Strike Elite Hail-Fire - Our darts will blot out the sun! D:

[Alex] “Surprising” is the word that came to mind when this rocked up on my doorstep faster than expected. It is the word that seemed to repeat itself at every significant step from unboxing, assembling, testing, playing and even a brief voltage mod. There were a few pleasant surprises, but a few concerning ones also. Even with other people's mixed feelings and reviews that I had heard prior to finally getting my own hands on this blaster, I am eager (Despite being delayed again... sorry Squaddies!) to present my take on the flagship of the new Nerf Elite line; the Hail-Fire! 

The Hail-Fire is currently an ‘unofficially released’ blaster, however it has already hit online stores such as Amazon (where this one has been procured from) and has popped up early on some U.S. store shelves. It is supposed to be on sale as part of their “9.9.12” (9th September) campaign… but there always seems to be some early bird business going on with new Nerf releases :P

As mentioned before, the Hail-Fire is the flagship model of the new Elite range. It is a battery powered flywheel system blaster and uses the clip system (just like a Rayven). But this is where the Hail-Fire makes its case to stand out from the crowd and dares to be different; its biggest selling point is it uses a unique “rotating ammo rack” system capable of holding up to an unprecedented EIGHT clips at a time! This means when using eight 6-dart clips, you get a 48 dart capacity. Using eight 18-dart clips gives you a whopping maximum of 144 darts total! It is not just designed to *hold* the vast number of clips, but also the ‘rotating’ mechanism allows for speedy reloads from an empty clip around to the next full one.

In the box you get the Hail-Fire blaster, twenty-four Elite darts, four Elite 6-dart clips, two round semi-circle shell fragments, the front handle split in two parts and the instructions. *NOTE*: This blaster uses 4x AA batteries which are not included. On the rear of the blaster just above the trigger grip is where the battery tray is located.

As explained in my Retaliator and Rampage review, the new Elite streamlines are improved over the regular darts. The Elite darts work particularly well in flywheel blasters like the Rayven and the Hail-Fire due to their rubber tip re-design. The new 6-dart clips are similar to the 12-dart clip with the Retaliator in that they are transparent on one side, they have slightly different detailing, and they have a safety ‘overload prevention’ notch on the inside to stop putting too many darts in at once.

When assembling the Hail-Fire, the first surprise I encountered was the tricky time I had trying to get the two round shell halves to clip into place. There are three spots they slot into on either side, but the centre one is a pain to get 'snapped' in. The front handle was a bit tricky trying to click together correctly… but it helps when you have them around the right way :s

The Hail-Fire seems like a bit of a coin-toss between if people like the aesthetics of it or not. For me personally, I originally did not like the look of it when it was first leaked / announced. It looks rather pudgy with a fat belly, and the rest of the blaster reminded me of an obese Barricade.

But as I look at it now, I feel I can look past its odd appearance and appreciate it more from a functional view. The Elite N-Strike colour scheme, digital camo texture and the transparent Jam-door to watch yourself rapid-fire are nice touches, but other than that it really does remind me of a ‘Barricade meets Vulcan’ offspring.

The rotating ammo rack is an interesting piece of work and really defines what the Hail-Fire is all about. Although it does make the blaster much wider than many would deem desirable, the second surprise I found was the size it actually is. The first leaked pictures all seemed to hint at it being big and chunky, but then when the teaser videos appeared of people wielding them at the Elite launch party made it look incredibly small. It is only once you have it in your hands do you realise that the size has been structured to just the right proportion. Any smaller and the clip ‘carousel’ would have been a very tight squeeze, any larger and the blaster would not have been younger kid friendly (sometimes it is easy for me to forget I am playing toys primarily designed for 8y/o+ kids… :S).

When wielding the Hail-Fire it handles much like a Vulcan; holding it lowered from the shoulder at around waist-height; one hand on the front handle, the other on the trigger grip. Initially it felt a little odd since it is shorter than a Vulcan plus being wider at the sides meant a little extra manoeuvring to get it in a comfortable spot. Although the size of the blaster is one thing, I do admit that the ergonomics of the Hail-Fire are a tad clumsy to get used to. However a few dozen empty clips later it does grow on you; the only times it’s wide girth and front handle get in the way is when attempting skill shots around corners or behind cover in tight spots.

The front handle is designed for two purposes; to carry and stabilise the blaster (especially when laden with larger heavy clips) and also to ‘advance’ the ammo rack. The user pushes the handle forwards to spin the ammo rack around part-way, then pulling the handle back to resting position will fully complete the rotation. 

The front grip is a little on the small side and could be a problem for larger-sized hand users. In addition, the way the advancing handle pushes forward sometimes feels like it does not go far enough... I kind of expected it to be like a crazy scientist’s lab where they “throw the switch!” with a massive swing and a huge “clunk!” noise, but instead it only moves a fraction of the expected distance forward. It’s not a bad thing, but still it feels odd.

Funnily enough it is the reverse of the trigger grip; it fits the palm of my hand perfectly and the triggers are nice and large enough for me to get my fingers wrapped around comfortably – especially the flywheel trigger which is much more prominent and defined than the teeny tiny ones almost hidden away on the Rayven or Nitron. But the third surprise to hit me when I initially grabbed the Hail-Fire is that the grip feels… different. Don't get the wrong idea I do find it comfortable, but it doesn't strike me as a familiar grip, kind of a hybrid of several different blaster grips.

The Hail-Fire uses a small trigger underneath the main trigger which revs up the flywheels. By holding it down it keeps the flywheels spinning. Pulling the larger main trigger pushes a dart into the flywheels which grab it and‘launches’ it. Being semi-auto means each individual pull of the main trigger fires one dart so the faster you pull the trigger, the faster you spit out those darts. Bearing in mind; the faster you shoot out darts, the slower the flywheels become, resulting in some loss of range.

Unfortunately, this is where I take a few negative stabs at the Hail-Fire. It has two tactical rails; one under the front barrel and another on the back on top, just above where the battery tray hides. My honest opinion is these rails are near useless; the front tactical rail is too short for most accessories and is only good for a Stampede or Retaliator grip, yet makes no sense when you’ll be holding it by the advancing handle on top. 

The rear tactical rail is silly for torches since again the front handle just gets in the way. Or impractical for scopes because you cannot look through them when holding it a-la Vulcan style. For custom-made tactical accessories then yes it is a great idea; maybe dart, clip or a Jolt holder? I bet a custom camera mount on the rear would make for some interesting footage from that position at a wide angle though :P Also near the rear tactical rail, the Hail-Fire features two anchor points for hooking a Bandolier onto securely. It does work… but is not very comfortable or practical to carry something so wide around unless you really had to, or just wanted it there as a safety in case of dropping it.

Next on the chopping block is the very purpose (and ‘selling point’) of the Hail-Fire is also its main flaw. When only a few clips are inserted (for example; the four 6-dart clips it comes with), the ammo rack moves quickly and accurately. But as soon as you either add more clips, larger clips, drums, or if they are not evenly loaded, this is where some problems may occur.

I find the weight is a key factor here; the heavier the ammo rack becomes, the more movement occurs when making big movements (such as while running and whirling it around in different directions too quickly). The ammo rack may struggle to keep the clips aligned with the dart pusher and the barrel while it is rattling around. This may result in either a dart getting pushed out of the clip, but not into the barrel and just fall out, or you may not even be able to pull the trigger properly.

This only occurred when moving the blaster around significantly or when it had somehow become unbalanced. This is why I do not tend to recommend drums on the Hail-Fire; because of their bulk and weight they tend to shift around a lot more than using regular clips. My advice is to only use straight clips, try to take your time and keep it steady; I’ve never had a problem with firing it from a standing position, while walking or doing a short mild jog while keeping it steady. Just remember it’s not made of precision metal components to keep everything perfectly in place, so be patient :P

The other problem is the weight affects advancing the ammo rack too quickly. Even when using eight 6-dart clips if you shove the front handle grip forwards and then backwards too quickly, the rotation system will just shudder coarsely and just reset to where it was without advancing, resulting in still being stuck with an empty clip loaded. This is another reason why I do not recommend using drums; you have to make not just one but TWO advances to get from one drum to the next. The upside of using drums, particularly the 35-dart Raider drum, is you do not need to reload as often, and can fire off a longer stream of darts. But I feel the potential drawbacks of weight, movement and then longer reloading times does not justify the upsides.

The key here is patience; push the handle ALL THE WAY forwards smoothly and wait for the ammo rack to rotate to the half-way point. Wait for the clips to stop rattling from the movement, and then pull back the handle smoothly to completely advance the clips into place. This whole process takes around a second and a half, but if you rush it you will end up wasting more time trying to resolve it, or end up misfiring it if you pull the trigger while the clips are still moving. Once they have stopped rotating and rattling, unleash all your firepower upon your foes!

 Although having a massive clip carrying capability is an upside, on the other foot the downside is when you have to swap out those empty clips. Removing or inserting clips is easy to do; just slot the clips into the ammo rack with the darts facing outwards until it ‘clicks’ into place, and simply pull it out away from the ammo rack to remove. But doing this to remove clips eight times *and* reinsert fresh ones… bottom line is it's time consuming and, unless you tip it completely upside down and do it properly, it can be fiddly. 

I’ve tried different methods for quickly reloading empty clips, but the only two ways I’ve come up with to ‘stay in the game’ in the heat of battle are as follows: 

 - When all clips have expired, treat it just like a regular clip system blaster; only load the front slot with freshly filled clips and avoid advancing the ammo rack. Trying to load multiple clips can waste valuable seconds and make you vulnerable to enemy fire

- If you do have time, cover or adequate backup to load multiple clips, it is worth the time flipping it completely upside-down to un-slot/re-slot the clips. Trying to slot clips in on an angle or while holding the trigger grip is just painstakingly fiddly, unless you have A LOT of practice or extremely good dexterity… which quite obviously I don’t from being ‘Captain Sausage Fingers’ :P

Bearing in mind though; this is still (generally) a quicker blaster to reload than a Vulcan with ammo belts. The more ammo you try and fit onto one blaster, the longer it will take to refill is a pretty standard rule of thumb. But by being clip-system based, you have the flexibility to use different amounts and sizes clips, plus you do not necessarily have to reload them all at once either.

On a small note here it is also a little annoying they only supply you with four 6-dart clips instead of the full potential of eight. Sure, they sell the other four and extra ammo in an ‘Upgrade’ kit… but it feels similar to the Rampage; you don’t quite get the whole deal in one package. Kind of like not getting the French Fries in a Happy-Meal box at McDonalds :(

Being a semi-auto blaster means you can pull the trigger as fast as you like and for each trigger pull a dart will spit out. The slower you fire, the further ranges you will achieve. The faster you fire, the shorter the range. However unlike the Rayven, you cannot really go "too fast" to the point that you could cause a jam or the flywheel motors run out of puff. The Hail-Fire seems to be a more efficient system than the Rayven that even when firing fast, you will still get acceptable ranges. And this is where the Hail-Fire gets its namesake from; you can spray darts like rain as if there were no tomorrow! Unlike Slam-fire blasters which take a lot more energy and pump-action movements, the Hail-Fire is much easier to unleash a torrent of darts quickly simply by each pull of the trigger, coupled with the ammo rack holding multiple clips with a quick reloading system means you can keep up the pressure for longer.

…That's the theory at least. I tried firing off eight 18-dart clips as fast as I could consecutively but by the time I got to the fifth clip... I was struggling to keep my trigger finger moving it was getting so tired! I feel the Hail-Fire is more suited for long-term shootouts where you try to conserve your shots as best as you can, unleashing small bursts of dart-rain when required. That being said if you’re a trigger-happy fanatic who CAN and WILL fire rapidly and constantly, then you’ll fall in love with the Hail-Fire even more >:D 

As much as I’ve mentioned all the negative points about its finicky handling and design flaws, they really do wash away when you get some practice and see this thing fired up and flinging out darts like no tomorrow. The semi-auto dart pusher mechanism on this one is definitely the best Nerf have come up with so far; it is so smooth, so efficient and solidly-built that every time I fire a dart and it makes that satisfactory loud ‘clunk!’ noise… it really does feel like a beast and you feel every shot getting hammered out, especially when rapid firing :P 

In addition, this guy does shoot pretty far. Although on the box it states the ‘75ft’ ranges, unless you were aiming high and really slow in firing, you would not often get that far. I’d estimate more like 50-60ft on an angle, and about 30-40ft when firing straight. However, I did a voltage mod on it (which I will demonstrate at a later date when I set up my “Modding Corner” section) and my goodness does it scare me how much further and more powerful it shoots! D: It didn’t like running at 16v; the motors just kept cutting out after 30 seconds of revving the flywheels, yet another surprise :S I instead wound it back to 12v and it is now purring like a kitten… a very loud, vicious kitten :P

 I give the Hail-Fire eight out of ten Elite darts; my only two real issues with it being; 

             -  The advancing ammo rack is a bit on the rattly and wobbly side *when heavily loaded*; making it risky to advance the ammo rack too quickly, or frustrating trying to fire when the clips are not aligned. The huge clip and dart capacity was the whole point of what made the Hail-Fire what it is, but because of this flaw its ‘in the heat of battle’ reliability is questionable. However if you don't mind using eight 6-dart clips (smaller and ligher anyways) at the cost of ammo capacity, then the rotating ammo rack becomes MUCH more forgiving.

         - Not coming with a full set of eight 6-dart clips. Even the Stampede came with bigger clips and more darts. The Hail-Fire by comparison feels like you’re getting cut short unless you buy the ‘Upgrade kit’ or happen to have heaps more clips lying around from other blasters (like I do :P).

The best word that sums up what kind of blaster this is I feel would be ‘exotic’. The Hail-Fire is a blaster that provides a new unique function in an original design. I can see a few situations where it would be highly valued; team battles such as Attack / Defend games, Humans vs Zombies, and especially at indoor skirmishes! Although many people will have their own opinions on just how successful they feel the Hail-Fire performs, I feel it has achieved worthy recognition of being a ‘flagship’ model of the Elite line. (Unlike the Nitron of the Vortex series… but that’s another story :S)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Productive Use of Alex's Time... XD

(Link) Well, I meant to pop this up earlier now, but this shall ever serve as a reminder to Alex, to use his time here at S.O.F.T. 'productively' :P Still an awesome comic though.

Review: Vortex Proton – Quick Draws, but Rounder? O.o…

(Link) The original quadruplet of Vortex blasters were released into the world here in Australia September 2011, as the Nerf brand’s traditional 9th September major release each year. (Just like the official release of the Elite line this year.) With an all new styling/colour scheme and new type of long-range ammunition, were the fans impressed? It was a mixed bag, but we here at S.O.F.T. HQ embraced the arrivals with open arms. 

In celebration of the Vortex Pyragon’s incoming release Down Under sometime next month (or now, according to sources from Urban Taggers), we thought we’d take an in-depth look at each Vortex blaster released thus far (except for the Lumitron, we’ve done that already :P) and finally when it is released, a review on the newest big, bad blaster for the year, the Pyragon itself. First up in our quadruplet of Vortex reviews, it is the humble Proton. 

In the box, it's contents are simple: the Proton unit, 3 XLR Green Discs, and instructions.

The concept of the Proton is simple: the light, quick single shot disc blaster of the four, the Vortex equivalent of the N-Strike veteran Nite Finder EX-3. There are some things that the Proton executes brilliantly, making it a worthy counterpart. For one, the build quality of the Proton feels so solid, and nothing rattles. It is a well-built blaster, of which you can’t argue with. 

And I’ve touched on this before with the Lumi review, I LOVE the ‘toughness’ and ‘alien’ looks of the Vortex blasters. The Proton is reminiscent of a sci-fi pistol. The new paint job isn’t too bad either, it highlights the fact these blasters are in a different league of their own. Due to the new ammo, the Vortex blasters are WAY thicker than their N-Strike cousins, but I didn’t really mind this. It was certainly exciting to try something new back then, and as soon as we whipped the blasters out of the box, we instantly put them to work shooting mini Frisbees and laughing stupidly :P 

The Proton features an awesome loading method. At the rear of the blaster features a pull-ring (similar to the Nite Finder) of which you pull back to reveal a slide. Simply load a disc into the slide, then pull down the red lever (on either side of the blaster, which caters for everyone :D) to prime the blaster, and SHOOT!!! It also has loads of etchings on the slide, which are of a instructional sort, which is great. This method works very well, and when the slide re-inserts into the main unit, it has a weird sci-fi springy sound, which adds to the appeal. 

The blaster also features a jam switch on the slide also, but I hardly ever needed to use it. As long you don’t rush re-loading it too fast, you should be fine. A Tactical Rail is also features on the top, but there aren’t any official Vortex accessories released thus far suited to it. 

It feels so sturdy and comfortable in hand, and pointing the Proton towards your target makes it feel like a real sci-fi pistol :P And contained in the handle, a loop to attach to the new Ammo Belt, or something similar. :P

As for distance, it does NOT disappoint. Due to the build of the discs, they travel slowly through the air, but gain even more distance than darts ever could, just so long as you don’t aim upwards at an angle. It has been proved by our brother blog Urban Taggers that the Proton slightly gets more distance than the rest of the range, and more accurate. As a Single Shot, it HAS to be accurate, and the Proton is excellent. Just beware though, due to the spinning nature of the discs, they tend to curve to the right when fired. 

To sum up, if you’re interested in finding out what the V line is all about, the Proton is a great little blaster. It makes for an excellent side-arm, as long as you carry extra ammo (since it doesn’t have built in holders) and great distance. If you interested in purchasing, the Proton is flying around major Australian retailers for $7 - $15 dollars, so I highly recommend it.

S.O.F.T.’s Official Verdict: 8.5 discs/10 discs 

Disc Wars Anyone? :D